Could there be a fracturing of the consensus over Atol reform at the top of Abta?
A break-out session at The Travel Convention in Malta suggested cracks could be appearing as a move to bring dynamically packaged sales into the consumer protection scheme becomes imminent.
The Department for Transport (DfT) is expected to outline the reform next month. This will seek to extend Atol protection to up to five million currently unprotected holiday sales through the creation of a ‘flight-plus’ category between seat-only and package sales.
The idea of flight-plus came from Abta. The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) took it up and the DfT embraced it. In the words of CAA consumer protection group director Richard Jackson: “Flight plus is in the political DNA now.”
But there is a problem. Flight-plus will protect the consumer when a retailer acting as a “travel organiser” ceases trading. What happens if an airline used by retailers fails?
The latter will be expected to find alternative flights, just as ATOL-holding tour operators do now. How will they afford that from the tiny margins on retailing, and will they be able to find airline-failure insurance to forestall paying out?
As On Holiday Group chief executive Steve Endacott put it: “Flight-plus transfers the risk of failure by an airline to the retailer.”
At least one senior Abta figure agreed with Endacott in conversation after the session and new board member Kane Pirie, chief executive of Travel Republic, is resolutely unimpressed.
But flight-plus is coming, and Abta remains officially in favour. My guess is that as soon as than the details are out people will be looking for ways around them.